An academy chain leader is refusing to accept any more children in care at his schools unless education secretary Damian Hinds pledges to take responsibility for their safety.
Paul Luxmoore, executive head of the Kent-based Coastal Academies Trust, has been warned by the Department for Education’s Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) against rejecting an in-year application sent on behalf of a looked-after child from another area.
But he says his schools are based in a deprived area, and too many vulnerable children are being placed with foster carers there, putting them at risk of drugs, gangs and sexual exploitation.
He said: “Thanet has always been a challenging area, and it’s becoming even more challenging because of the growth of drug-related gangs."
Looked-after children are given priority in school admissions under the statutory schools admissions code. But a Tes investigation has revealed they often face major barriers.
Local authorities can force a maintained school to accept a child in care if they refuse. But if an academy rejects an application, they have to appeal to the Education and Skills Funding Agency to issue a "direction" on their behalf.
Mr Luxmoore has been sent two notices by the ESFA stating that it is “minded to direct” the trust to accept a child, and warning that refusing to do so would amount to breaking the terms of his funding agreement.
He told Tes: “I said [to the ESFA] that I would only consider accepting a direction to accept out-of-county, looked-after children if that direction came from the secretary of state personally, so that he takes responsibility for sending the most vulnerable children to one of the most deprived parts of the country, in spite of our warnings of the dangers they face here."
Regarding the risks of his funding agreement being terminated, he said: “To close a school [on these grounds]…it would be politically interesting."
Kate Greig, headteacher of King Ethelbert School, a secondary academy in Thanet that is part of Mr Luxmoore's trust, said: “There are gangs and drugs and sexual commerce and lots of that happening in Thanet. To send vulnerable children here is just criminal.”
Thanet, Kent, is the 35th most deprived area out of 326 local authority districts in England but, as an area with relatively affordable housing and limited employment opportunities, it has a large number of foster carers.
The heads' comments come as a Tes investigation reveals only 14 local authorities applied to the ESFA last year to ask them to direct academies to accept a child.
The findings, from a Freedom of Information request to the DfE, also found that the ESFA took up to 99 days to intervene in a case after it was referred to them.
The Office of the Schools Adjudicator’s annual report, published earlier this month, noted that some local authorities believe that “not enough consideration” is given by other councils to educating children when selecting their foster placements.
Alan Brookes, headteacher of Fulston Manor School in Sittingbourne, Kent, says local schools need more resources for children who often have “very complex needs”.
But Jane Pickthall, chair of the National Association of Virtual School Heads, said: "We need to get away from the idea that all looked-after children are a problem."
She pointed to the increasing accountability pressures placed on schools.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “All decisions in relation to looked after children must be in the best interests of the child and their safety is an absolute priority. Local authorities have a statutory duty to consider the right placement for a child, which should take into account a number of factors, one of which is whether the area is the right place for them.
“As is routine, The ESFA is working with [Coastal Academies Trust] on a resolution.”
This is an edited article from the 23 February edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here